Sleep training is cruel. According to Facebook experts all over the Gentle Parenting sites, parents who sleep-train are cold-hearted and neglectful; abusive, even.
I mean, babies are tossed into a cold, dark room, on a cold, hard mattress for heaven's sake. There's nothing gentle about that.
Reading random comments and anti-sleep-training articles on the internet will have you believe that parents who let their children “cry it out” at bedtime are throwing their babies in a cold, dark dungeon, promptly at 7 pm every night just so we can drink wine and laugh at their cries.
Is that really what happens, though?
No. That is a narrative perpetuated by the gentle parenting and attachment parenting communities. It sells books, courses, and baby products.
The Montessori community seems to be pretty much split evenly on this subject. It mostly just comes down to personal interpretation of the research about sleep training and personal preference.
Will sleep training hurt my baby?
As far as research of parenting practices and their long-term effects on children, the “evidence” that the anti- sleep-training crowd uses to justify their (sometimes dangerous) sleeping practices, and to bash sleep-training parents, is not rooted in strong science..
The studies are poorly conducted and the synopses are heavily biased and, for a lover of science, difficult to read.
To say that setting a bedtime, after a long day of bonding and love, can cause lifelong brain damage is a hard stretch.
What is sleep training?
Let me paint a more accurate picture for you of what sleep-training really is:
The evening routine commences with a relaxing bath and some soothing lotion, maybe even a little massage to relax those muscles that worked so hard, rolling and crawling all day. Then, parents put some nice, warm pajamas on, taking care to make sure no hair is wrapped around tiny toes.
A favorite book is read. The baby's room is set to a comfortable temperature and the crib is cleared of anything potentially harmful.
The light is turned off, leaving a calm-inducing atmosphere, lit only by a nightlight. Mom might nurse, or either parent might offer a bottle while humming or singing a familiar lullaby.
Then, before the sweet baby is laid in his crib, awake, mom and dad give a gentle kiss and say goodnight. This is where Montessori and sleep training meet; parents have followed the child's sleep cues and povided the comfort the baby needs, as well as the atmosphere.
They may wake up to eat, and, of course, you go in there and feed them. Then you lay them back down, awake. They are again going to be upset, but not as upset as they were at bedtime.
Rinse and repeat, and after a few nights, there will be no tears. Your baby might even smile as you lay them down.
This, now, is their new routine, and they appreciate no deviation from it. Just like with their old routine.
This is sleep training in a nutshell and it is the route many Montessori parents choose, as co-sleeping is not always desired by the parents and/or child and many parents' work situations don't allow for it.
How to make bedtime easy
There is usually some crying involved in sleep training, and that is why it is not considered a Montessori-aligned parenting practice.
There are many ways parents can make sleep learning easier, however. Here are several:
- Follow your child's sleep cue's and lay them down before they are overtired. (rubbing eyes, glassy eyes, yawning, irritablility)
- Keep a solid pre-sleep routine. (bath, massage, pajamas, feeding, book)
- Make sure any post-feeding gas has been worked out of their system.
- Lay your baby down drowsy, but awake, in a comforting atmosphere.
Many sleep experts recommend not feeding immediately before sleep. Here are some other tips:
- Keep days bright and nights dark.
- No screentime immediately before bed.
- Calm, quiet acticities before bed only.
- Allow baby to cluster feed in the evening.
- Avoid overtiredness by ensuring adequate daytime naps.
- Ensure plenty of closeness and bonding happens throughout the day.
Attachment and sleep-training
There is a ton of controversy around encouraging independent sleep, especially in the Attachment Parenting segment of the parenting population. Many muse that sleep training damages the parent-child attachment.
(To clarify, Attachment Theory and Attachment Parenting are two separate things. The Attachment Theory is a valid scientific theory that basically states a secure, healthy attachment to a caregiver in the early years of a child's life is necessary for optimal development. Attachment Parenting is simply an evolution of the Attachment Theory.)
There is no evidence this is true.
Love your baby, comfort your baby, talk to your baby, show them affection throughout the day and secure attachment will happen. They will also come to know that nights are for sleep and that their loving parents will be in when they are needed.
Dr. Montessori's thoughts on sleep
Dr. Montessori had some thoughts on children's sleep habits. She felt that a child should sleep when they want and wake when they please.
During the time she wrote these musings, however, parents were still being told by physicians to keep babies on a strict schedule and to not spoil their children with too much affection.
My own grandmother told me that as a baby, she was picked up and held by the clock, fed by the clock, and put back in her cot by the clock.
It is very likely Dr. Montessori was raging against this particular machine.
But, much time has passed since then and, although some parents do still adhere to schedules for their little ones, they are loose schedules; more like routines. Many of these schedules/routines are based on the cues of the child and the needs of the child.
How much sleep do kids need?
Much research has been done since Dr. Montessori's words were printed. We know a lot more about the sleep needs of children than was known in her time.
Here are the current recommendations on the sleep needs of children ages 0-5:
Newborns (0-3 months)
Infants (4-11 months)
Toddlers (1-2 years)
Preschoolers (3-5 years)
Sleep training and Montessori
There is much propaganda regarding the cortisol levels of children during sleep training, but elevated cortisol levels are only harmful over an extended period of time, such as chronic sleep deprivation, extended maternal separation, and physical and emotional neglect.
As stated earlier, sleep training typically involves a few new nights of protesting at bedtime, then years of easy bedtimes and restful sleep. Many parents continue nursing their babies when they wake hungry; needs are not ignored.
There is absolutely no evidence that cortisol levels remain elevated beyond the short period of sleep learning.
Also, something you should understand about the hormone, cortisol, is that it is a hormone associated with learning. Your child's cortisol levels will elevate when they are learning to grab objects with their hands, when they are learning to crawl, walk, talk, ECT. Cortisol, in and of itself, is not a bad hormone, in moderation.
What are the effects of sleep deprivation?
I am a Montessori enthusiast, but I am a scientist, as well.
Here is a little food for thought, for those of you that are interested:
Lack of sufficient sleep is linked to cognitive and behavioral issues.
Sleep that occurs early in the night tends to be more restorative.
Sleep schedules are healthy.
Sleep training causes no damage to your child.
If your little one is getting proper sleep in a bed with the parents, great. If not, there are steps you can take to help the process along.
Sleep training is a touchy subject in the Montessori community. Montessori was not pro-sleep training, however it can absolutely be done in a gentle, Montessori-aligned way.
Cheers and don't forget to subscribe!